February 14, 2015 and the Space for Ideas, By Ifeanyi Uddin
Across our political space, one gravamen is repeated to the point of monotony: how money now dominates our politics. The conversation around this takes place with varying degrees of sophistication. It includes the excited disputation by the newspaper vendors’ stand (close to the bus stop) about how much each got from the last political rally, and which of the different bearers of gifts was the most open-handed. In the adjoining offices, just across from the newsstand, the disquiet is over how “godfathers” (who spend stupendous amounts on behalf of their minions) have captured the political space.
Underlying much of these narratives are two unspoken worries. First is the concern with the source of this spending. Or, more properly with the magnitude of the spend. The latter anxiety more properly speaks to the fear that only the subversion of the apparatuses of governance may yield funds in such large quantities. And that the abandon with which the monies are spent address a different production concern: the promise of access to the public coffers, for the successful candidate.
The bigger worry, though, in all of this, is the fact that stragglers increasingly occupy the space for intellect in the country. Without question, the biggest consequence of this is the absence of any serious debate around the fortunes of and outlook for the economy. The proximate cause of this new weakness has been the incumbent administration’s knee-jerk loathing of criticism. Arguably, not all of the criticisms tossed at it by its opponents have been clearly thought-out.
Nonetheless, both the Jonathan administration’s need to respond to all comments about it and its fondness for demonising all reproaches have fed a new and hazardous bifurcation of thought. “This president good or bad”, means you are either for or against the president.
Was it always like this? No, would seem to be the immediate response. Both the first and second republics produced tomes on policy and development strategy for moving the country forward. These were, therefore, periods when our political classes put their minds to it? Not, after a second look, would you reach this conclusion. Much of the writing in both these periods was the product of the prodigious effort of one man, Chief Obafemi Awolowo; and the rest, were but the responses of his opponents to his thoughts.
Despite the myth that has come today to surround the Awolowo writings, we do well to remember that they were themselves but a part of a global conversation around appropriate development stratagems. The socialist model (in all its incarnations) with its stress on the collective vied strongly with the Anglo-Saxon one, and its stress on the individual: the tension between responsibility and rights, respectively.
This is not to take anything away from the genius of Chief Obafemi Awolowo. But it helps understand how the debate during the Babangida administration over whether the appropriate path to reforms in Nigeria should go through a homegrown concoction, or take advantage of the IMF’s then notorious “conditionalities” was conducted with that much gusto.
How much of the present collapse of domestic conversation around how to move the country forward is the result of the socialist worldview’s bouleversement by the late-1980s? A lot it would seem. For much of the domestic argument then against the status quo was informed by both the writings of Marx and Lenin on one hand, and the example of the Soviet Union on the other.
The problem with today’s absence of debate is well-nigh palpable. Finally, we have candidates for the office of president for the two leading political parties in elections that are scheduled for two months hence, and aside the platitudes that are been bandied about, the absence of dialogue around the country’s main choke-points is disturbing. Is the Boko Haram insurgency a key aspect of centrifugal forces that might very soon pull the country apart? How to respond to it? Militarily, or politically?
And, if the latter, what development models are appropriate? The market would drive growth, but only in ways that the market can — with collateral damage strewn in its path. How may this process be speeded up while avoiding the casualties amongst the poor and the vulnerable that have become a hallmark of capitalism? And how may safety nets be constructed without impeding the innovativeness, on which the market economy thrives? Sad then, that between the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the All Progressives Congress (APC) not much is being discussed along these dimensions.
Yet, next year’s general elections were about more than this. In the incumbent government, we confront the most pernicious manifestation of entitlement mentality in politics. Apparently, we are nearing that point where one quirk of our domestic politics — the principle of rotation amongst the constituent regions and its utter disregard for merit — begets another illegitimate child: the certitude that each region that gets its turn at governing is entitled to 8 years in office.
The latter principle begets a most dire form of moral hazard. Guaranteed 8 years in office, what is the measure of success of any government? Rotation guarantees that at the end of one cycle, regions will get another bite at the cherry, irrespective of how poorly their representatives may have performed previously. Meanwhile you can charge critics of the incumbent administration with a new type of tribalism: loathing of the fact that a certain region now has access to the apparatus of government.
It is this twisted weltanschauung that the February 14, 2015 general elections invite us to change.